National League races appear wide open

Apr 9, 2001 3:54 AM

            The National League looks just as wide open as the American League, with the Western Division, arguably, the best division in baseball.

            Last year’s champs, the Mets, look strong again, with solid starting pitching and a great bullpen, and, of course, the Braves are still the Braves. In the Central, the Cardinals are still considered the favorites, but the Astros should be back and the Reds have, possibly, the best everyday lineup in the league.

            The Giants have Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, and those two alone are enough to keep any team’s offense churning. But manager Dusty Baker also has a strong, deep starting rotation, an outstanding bullpen, headed by the best closer in the National League, Rob Nen. Livan Hernandez is an innings-eater at the top of the rotation, and Shawn Estes and Russ Ortiz may be the two pitchers most helped by the new strike zone. Both walked more than 100 batters last season.

            The Diamondbacks have an elderly roster, but they also have an unmatchable top of the rotation duo in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. The lineup is strong with Tony Womack getting on base, and Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley driving him in. The question surrounding Arizona is whether veterans, like Matt Williams and Jay Bell, can avoid injury and rebound from poor 2000 seasons.

            The Dodgers have the highest payroll in baseball, and one of the best groups of starting pitchers in the game, as well. But the rest of the roster is mediocre. The loss of Adrian Beltre, who is out with abdominal problems following surgery over the off-season, is huge for the Dodgers. He was to provide power toward the bottom of the lineup in support of Gary Sheffield, Shawn Green and Eric Karros, in addition to his good glove at the hot corner. But without him, LA’s lineup is a hitter or two short. Sheffield is a great hitter, but Karros hit just .250 last season, and Green has yet to adjust to life in the National League.

            The Rockies could be the team to beat in the West when all is said and done. Mike Hampton was a great pickup to head the rotation, and, along with Denny Neagle and Pedro Astacio, he forms a formidable starting trio. The bullpen is good, with Jose Jimenez closing and Gabe White setting him up. Neifi Perez may be the best shortstop in the league and if Larry Walker can stay healthy throughout the season, hitting behind Todd Helton, Colorado will score plenty of runs and contend late into the season.

            The Cardinals ran away with the Central Division last season, finishing 10 games ahead of the Reds, who never truly challenged. This season, the Cardinals are off to a tough start, and Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds are both hurting a bit at this point. Those injuries may become very difficult to deal with as the season wears on because the Cardinals don’t have a great group of hitters after those two. Of even more concern to St. Louis is the state of their pitching staff. Darryl Kile, his opening day start against the Rockies not withstanding, should be fine, but Rick Ankiel hasn’t been able to throw strikes consistently for some time, and Matt Morris and Andy Benes weren’t impressive in their first outings either.

            Even without Ken Griffey, the Reds have plenty of offensive talent. Barry Larkin is still outstanding, and Dmitri Young is a very dangerous switch-hitter. First baseman Sean Casey is an All-Star caliber player, and Pokey Reese is the best defensive second baseman in the National League. When Griffey is finally at full strength following his hamstring problems, this team should put up some incredible offensive numbers, especially at newly-configured Cinergy Field, where the ball seems to carry even better now than it has in the past.

            The scariest team in the central may be the Astros, though. Houston was awful last season, but injuries to Billy Wagner, Shane Reynolds, Jay Powell and Craig Biggio hurt the Astros, as did the terrible performance by their entire pitching staff, outside of Scott Elarton. Elarton has become a true number one starter, and the team is hoping Jose Lima can come back all the way from last season’s nightmare. If they can keep their staff healthy, the lineup will give them plenty of runs to work with, with Jeff Bagwell, Moises Alou, Richard Hidalgo and Biggio.

            Once again, the Eastern Division looks like a two-team race between the Mets and the Braves. Neither team looks as good as they did last season, but both are good teams with solid veteran leadership.

            The Mets have two great players in Mike Piazza and Edgardo Alfonso, and they’re banking on a return to form from Robin Ventura, who hit just .232 last season. The rest of the position players look very average, especially in the outfield, and the return of Rey Ordonez means another bad bat in the lineup. But the pitching staff should be very good once again, with Al Leiter, Rick Reed, Glendon Rusch, Steve Trachsel and Kevin Appier in the rotation and Armando Benitez, John Franco and Turk Wendell in the pen.

            The Braves don’t know what they’ll be able to get from John Smoltz this season, and Kevin Millwood has been inconsistent throughout last season and this spring, but with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, they should win plenty of regular season games. Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones form a great middle of the lineup, and with Rafael Furcal and Quilvio Veras at the top of the lineup, they’ll have a number of different ways to score runs.

            The balanced schedule means that the division winners will be true champions, but the wild card may come from the division with the poorest group of teams. Don’t be surprised if all the good teams in the west beat up on each other, leading to the Eastern or Central Divisions once again claiming the fourth spot in the post-season.